The short, eventful life of USS Dorado
About this series: During World War II, the U.S. Navy lost 52 submarines. Today and Monday, The Day looks at two of them. This story is drawn from the USS Dorado file at the Submarine Force Library in Groton, the book “USS Dorado (SS-248): On Eternal Patrol” by Douglas E. Campbell, the booklet “The Abbott Collection: Paintings of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force,” and the archives of The Day.
Seventy-five years ago this month, a submarine, fresh out of Electric Boat and newly commissioned, left Groton for the Panama Canal and was never seen again.
That’s almost all that’s known about the service life of the USS Dorado.
Amid the swirl of World War II, the loss of the boat and 77 aboard was not major news, even locally. On Oct. 25, 1943, The Day reported that the sub was overdue and presumed lost. The brief story was on Page 12.
If there really were nothing else to say, Dorado still would hold a significant place in local history. Of the 52 U.S. submarines lost during the war, it was the only one that met its end directly after leaving Groton.
But in its unnaturally brief career, Dorado left three other legacies:
It was among the first EB subs to be built in part by women. It inspired a unique set of paintings, now enshrined in the Navy’s art collection, that depict life on a submarine in wartime. And its fate is an enduring mystery.
* * *
Elbert Orcutt couldn’t exactly claim to have named a submarine, but he did have good timing. On July 13, 1942, the English teacher at Bulkeley School in New London wrote to EB, proposing that one of its new boats be called “Dorado” after a fish now better known by its Hawaiian name, mahi-mahi.
Two weeks later, the shipyard wrote back to let him know great minds thought alike. The Navy had picked that very name for submarine 248, due to go into production in a few weeks.
No. 248 differed from most EB-built subs that preceded it in an important way. When the half-finished boat was launched into the Thames River on May 23, 1943, it wasn’t at the company’s main yard.
After the U.S. joined the fight, EB expanded to meet wartime needs. It took over the site of a World War I-era shipyard two miles to the south, where Pfizer is now, and created 10 new building ways. Dubbed the Victory Yard, the new site helped EB become the largest sub builder in the country, and it soon reached staggering production levels.
While Dorado was just the second sub built at the Victory Yard, its launch was the seventh in 13 weeks at the company overall. By then, launch ceremonies had been dispensed with, and the boat hit the water with little fanfare.
Alida Allgood and Luba Eaves, both of Waterford, used cutting torches to remove steel plates holding the hull in place so it could slide into the river. The person assigned to that task was sometimes called the “trigger man,” but in this case it was trigger women. With the opening of the Victory Yard and the scarcity of working-age men, EB began hiring women for construction jobs for the first time ever.
The first female welders, machinists and sheet metal workers came on board just weeks after work began on Dorado in late summer 1942.
Life magazine sent a photographer to record the women at work, and the color images show them in overalls and gloves, with sleeves rolled up and hair in kerchiefs, as Dorado comes together beneath their hands. For reasons unknown, Life never published the photos.
According to a member of Dorado’s crew, men and women working together below decks led to the idea that the boat was jinxed.
Donald Wheeler, who left the sub shortly before it sailed, wrote years later that on the day of the launch, the skeleton crew on board decided to blow the vents.
“When they did so, hundreds of used rubbers came out of the vents and flew up into the sky like deflated balloons,” Wheeler wrote. “Right away we knew that those working on this submarine had other things on their minds.”
* * *
Belgian-born Georges Schreiber once said, “I don’t want to be just an American with citizenship papers. I want to completely associate myself with America.” That wasn’t just something to say. In the late 1930s, the artist traveled the country, painting ordinary people in all 48 states.
When the war broke out, he found work with the Army and Navy. The services commissioned a series of works from him that by 1943 included two widely used war bond posters.
Thomas Hart Benton was also an artist whose work celebrated the everyday lives of Americans. A prominent member of the Regionalist movement, which emphasized realism, he created paintings and murals that showed folksy, traditional scenes of farmers, railroads and small-town life.
His style was similar to Schreiber’s, and both found themselves with wartime commissions from the military. In 1943, they landed one working together.
The Navy was looking for a portrayal of life on a submarine at war. Abbott Laboratories, a drug and medical supply company, provided the financing.
Benton and Schreiber arrived in Groton just as the newly commissioned Dorado was preparing for its shakedown cruise. The two artists signed on for the journey.
On deck and in the cramped spaces below, the two worked side by side with the sailors as they went through their paces. The result was a series of 25 vibrant paintings that show routine moments in an undersea vessel. Schreiber called it “the greatest human experience of my life.”
The paintings show sailors on watch peering through binoculars from the conning tower. Below decks, they drink coffee, peel potatoes and play cards next to torpedoes. They clamber through a hatch and man a deck gun.
In one scene the artists never saw, the captain watches as a torpedoed enemy ship sinks with a billow of smoke.
The shakedown cruise — actually four short trips from Groton — didn’t involve enemy action. It also didn’t inspire confidence that Dorado was ready for combat.
“Many, many times we desperately tried to dive and the Dorado would just not submerge,” Wheeler wrote.
A fire broke out at one point, and the crew took a while to realize it wasn’t a drill. On a test dive, Dorado’s bow stuck in a mud bank and couldn’t be freed for hours.
When the shakedown ended, the artists went home to finish their paintings, and Dorado sailed for the Panama Canal despite all the problems. Three weeks later, Schreiber heard on the radio that the sub was presumed lost.
“I became hysterical,” he said. “It was the greatest personal loss I have had in this war.”
He completed 12 watercolors, and one of them, titled “Who Are You?,” brought awareness of Dorado’s loss to a wide audience. It depicts a sailor with a signal lamp challenging another vessel to identify itself.
The Treasury Department saw it in 1944 and chose it over 80 entries to promote the 5th War Loan, Schreiber’s third such poster. At the upper left is an inscription:
“In Memory USS Dorado.”
* * *
In the early 1970s, cargo pilots flying off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula used a landmark they called the “Gray Ghost” to tell them they were approaching their destination. It was an object sticking up from the sandy bottom in shallow water, and when the sun was low in the sky, it cast a long shadow.
It appeared to be the conning tower of a submarine.
The Gray Ghost, which later vanished beneath the shifting sands, is one of many unanswered questions surrounding Dorado’s loss.
When the sub failed to arrive at the Panama Canal in October 1943, unsuccessful searches were launched in the Caribbean. A Navy Court of Inquiry decided Dorado had probably been the victim of friendly fire.
A U.S. patrol bomber had gotten bad information about the sub’s expected position, where bombing restrictions were in place. So when the crew encountered an unknown submarine, later presumed to be Dorado, they dropped depth charges and a demolition bomb.
But this story has been questioned on several counts. One, the bomb and one of the depth charges failed to explode.
Two, the crew of the bomber testified that they had studied the submarine carefully before attacking and saw detailed characteristics of a German U-boat. This also has been questioned, as the attack occurred at night, and the crewmen were motivated not to convict themselves of sinking an American vessel.
Three, a confirmed U-boat that subsequently fired on the bomber had just laid a minefield nearby, which Dorado could have sailed into.
One theory speculates that Dorado, which had trouble submerging in its shakedown, was damaged, either by the bombing or a mine, but not sunk. In that scenario, according to oceanographers, it then would have drifted west with the prevailing currents.
That would have brought the stricken submarine to the eastern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, where three decades later, pilots charted their course by watching for the Gray Ghost.